Obituary

Stephen Hawking (1942 - 2018)

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Stephen Hawking (Santi Visalli / Getty Images) Stephen Hawking in the Science Memorials Photo Gallery Enlarged Photo
Stephen Hawking, one of the world's best-known scientists who brought theoretical physics to the general public with his 1988 best-seller, "A Brief History of Time," died Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Cambridge, England. He was 76.

Hawking was an unmistakable figure, as well-known for his wheelchair and synthetic speaking voice as for his work in the sciences. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease – when he was 21, he achieved greatness even while his condition worsened and eventually all but paralyzed him.

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Born Jan. 8, 1942 – which his personal website points out as "300 years after the death of Galileo" – in Oxford, England, Hawking was the son of scholars, both of whom attended the University of Oxford. Young Stephen, though destined to become one of the most respected minds of the 20th century, was an average student, as he told biographer Kitty Ferguson. He cited his dismal handwriting and slowness in learning to read, but that same nonreader grew fascinated by machines, taking apart clocks and an old telephone switchboard to build a computer while he was in high school.

Mathematics, however, drew the young Hawking as he approached college age, but his father wanted him to study medicine; in the end, he settled on physics and chemistry, studying at his parents' alma mater. As with many naturally bright scholars, he found his schoolwork too easy, which led to laziness: He later estimated that he spent an average of only about an hour each day on schoolwork. Despite his haphazard approach to his studies, he excelled, receiving the highest marks as well as admission to the University of Cambridge for graduate school.

Hawking faced an unexpected challenge during his final year at Oxford. The first symptoms of his ALS began to appear: He became unusually clumsy, and his speech began to slur. His family noticed the changes and consulted doctors, who eventually diagnosed him with ALS in 1963, when he was 21, giving him two years to live.

That's an unusually early age to be diagnosed with ALS, which typically appears decades later, around age 60. It may be that the early-onset nature of the disease was the key to how Hawking outlived his early prognosis so dramatically. Early-onset ALS tends to be a slower-moving form of the disease, according to health experts, and those rare patients diagnosed with it in their teens or 20s can be more likely to have decades ahead of them, rather than a scant few years.

Despite his health concerns, Hawking entered Cambridge, studying cosmology and general relativity. With his dire prognosis, Hawking became more serious about his studies, setting a goal to earn his doctorate while he still could. He received his doctorate in cosmology in 1966. By the early 1970s, as his disease progressed, he used a wheelchair to get around, but he was nowhere near ready to concede defeat to ALS.

His work as a graduate student and as a young graduate centered on black holes. In 1974, he proved that black holes aren't entirely "black" – they emit radiation. This release of invisible particles or waves is now called Hawking radiation, which at first wasn't a widely agreed-upon concept. Decades later, Hawking radiation stands as one of his greatest legacies.

Along with his first major discovery came prestige and job offers. Hawking became a fellow of the Royal Society at 32, one of the youngest scientists to have achieved that honor. He began teaching at a noted research university, the California Institute of Technology, and later returned to Cambridge as a professor, where he stayed for many years. He worked on theories of the origin of the universe, seeking to go beyond the Big Bang Theory of creation and discover what existed before the explosion.

As Hawking's condition worsened, he began to lose his speech and, eventually, underwent an emergency tracheotomy that entirely destroyed his ability to talk. He began using the synthetic voice that would become so indelibly associated with him that he ultimately had it copyrighted. He initially communicated by using his hands to select letters, words and phrases. As his paralysis increased, he was reduced to using a single cheek muscle to operate the voice synthesizer.

Increasing paralysis and deterioration of his voice failed to deter Hawking from continuing to discover and achieve. In 1988, he published the popular science work that brought his work to the masses, "A Brief History of Time." In it, he discussed subjects including black holes, the Big Bang, wormholes and time travel – all in language designed to be understandable to nonscientists. Hawking bristled at some of the adjustments he had to make to be more understandable. For example, he wanted the book to include the complex mathematical equations and technical language that came naturally to him. In the end, his publishers leaned heavily enough on him that he was persuaded to make the necessary revisions to allow the book to appeal to a wide audience.

"A Brief History of Time" was one of many of Hawking's written works. Others include scholarly works and popular science, as well as a series of children's books co-written by his daughter, Lucy Hawking. "George's Secret Key to the Universe" and its sequels present black holes and other concepts of physics to young readers 9 and up.

Among Hawking's interests later in life was the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. In 2015, he helped launch Breakthrough Initiatives, an attempt to locate extraterrestrial life. He also spoke of the importance of artificial intelligence – not only developing computers that think like humans, but also understanding its risks. He continued to work with students, supervising doctoral candidates and serving as director of research at the Cambridge University department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics.

Hawking wasn't all business as a scientist. He became known for a sense of fun, racing his wheelchair around wildly and placing wagers with colleagues about the scientific hypotheses they sought to prove. He appeared on popular TV shows including "The Simpsons" and contributed a voice-over, via his synthetic voice, to Pink Floyd's song "Keep Talking." He dreamed of going into space, and in 2007 he sought to increase interest in space flight by participating in a zero-gravity flight on a "Vomit Comet" – a reduced-gravity aircraft.

In 2014, Hawking's life and love story became better-known to a wide audience with the release of the Oscar-nominated biopic "The Theory of Everything." Though it diverged from the facts from time to time, it painted a broadly correct picture of Hawking's ALS struggle as well as his courtship of and marriage to his first wife, Jane Wilde, who wrote the memoir upon which the movie was based. The couple were portrayed by actors Eddie Redmayne, who won the movie's lone Academy Award for his performance, and Felicity Jones.

Hawking and Wilde met while he was a student and married in 1965, then went on to have three children: Robert, Lucy and Timothy. The couple separated in 1990 and were divorced in 1995, shortly after which Hawking remarried. His second wife, Elaine Mason, had been one of his nurses. That marriage also ended in divorce, in 2006. Hawking is survived by both ex-wives as well as by his three children and three grandchildren.

Hawking received many honors over the years, including many honorary degrees. He was named a commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1982. In 2009, he received America's Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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– Linnea Crowther
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